Dig Diary – Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day Twenty-Two

The porch complex around the entrance to Structure 12.

The porch complex around the entrance to Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

Another hot day on the Ness, and an even hotter one in the trenches.

Structure Fourteen turned out to be particularly sizzling today.  A thin deposit of clay was peeled off, in the expectation of finding a floor level, and, indeed, this happened. It is still high up in the structure and probably represents a second, or even third, phase of use, but orthostatic features also appeared together with another hearth.

Clearly, Structure Fourteen has a good deal more to reveal, yet the most exciting information came from the other end of the structure.

A small sondage (hole, for the uninitiated) was dug between the outer face of Structure One and elements of Structure Fourteen.  This showed that the two structures fully respect each other, carefully, and were probably constructed on the same level. In other words, one does not intrude on the other, either physically or in being unnaturally close.

The "two-tone" pot sherd.

The “two-tone” pot sherd. (ORCA)

This is another, and important, indication that Structures One and Fourteen are contemporary. Remember, it is only in the last ten days, or so, that we have realised that Structure Fourteen is a significant building in its own right.

Now it is right up there with Structures One, Twelve and Eight as being among the most notable Ness buildings of the later Neolithic (say, c. 3000-2800BC).

And speaking of Structure Twelve, a most unusual pottery find has emerged.

Regular readers will remember that two large deposits of pottery were found outside the entrance to the structure, and within the porch-like arrangement.

Some of the decorated pot from this location was examined today and attention focused on a large, body sherd, decorated with a strip of clay on the external surface, which had then been in incised.

The pot was a uniform grayish colour from its 5,000 year sojourn in the earth. But, suspecting that there was something “different” about it, it was carefully cleaned with a very soft, natural hair brush.

Amazingly, it turned out to be two-toned. The external surface of the body sherd, no doubt slipped with a clay slurry, was a fairly normal light-orange colour. But the decorative clay strip was a distinct red.

The laser scanner is set up ready for Smart Fauna.

The laser scanner is set up ready for the “Smart Fauna” programme. (ORCA)

The sherd was immediately subjected to analysis by Scott’s portable XRF machine, which defines the chemical composition of anything it is pointed at.

The results were surprising. There was a differentiation in the chemical composition of the strip, as opposed to the clay body and the most reasonable conclusion is that two different types of clay were used in forming the pot.

This is the first time that anyone, on site, can recall such a pot from the Orcadian Neolithic, and, at the very least, it adds another element to the story of how Neolithic people on the Ness used colour in their lives and on their buildings and artefacts.

Hugo's extendable camera mount - a great asset on site.

Hugo’s extendable camera mount – a great asset on site. (ORCA)

More analysis of this extraordinary find will follow.

Also in Structure Twelve, Owen confirms that the basal course of the inner, east wall have now been reached and have survived the robbing. This will allow the symmetry we imagined to be present in this building to be confirmed.

We were delighted to see Dr Ingrid Mainland on site today. As the bone expert from the archaeology department, she will be leading the Smart Fauna programme, which will examine the huge bone deposit which surrounds Structure Ten.

A variety of methods will be used, including laser scanning, photography and the application of a new programme, which has only been used before to examine human bone.

The combination of these methods will, it is hoped, give a detailed record of the way in which the bone deposit was laid down.

And, for all those folk on the site tours, who ask if all the bones were deposited at the same time, the site director confirms that the best evidence thus far suggests that this is exactly what happened.

The central hearth of Structure Ten, under quadrant excavation as viewed by Hugo's PoleCam.

The central hearth of Structure Ten, under quadrant excavation as viewed by Hugo’s PoleCam. (ORCA)

Site visitors have included Roff Smith, of National Geographic, magazine, who is preparing a major article on the Ness excavations, and R. Carlos Nakai,  a Grammy-nominated Native American Indian musician, who gave an impromptu concert on his native flute.

We should make clear that, whereas the real and original native flute used generations ago was a pierced eagle bone, Carlos now uses, for conservation reasons, a flute of synthetic material, which delivers exactly the same haunting sound.

Another addition to our arsenal of technology is Hugo’s PoleCam – a large extendable pole on which a remote control camera can be mounted.  Some amazing aerial shots are achievable from the safety of ground level, that give a different perspective to the site.

Hi-ho! A stream of very satisfied members of the Excavation Club leave the site.

Hi-ho! A stream of very satisfied members of the Excavation Club leave the site. (ORCA)

Today also marked the last session of the very successful Excavation Club.

Another satisfied set of young customers left with a sense of achievement after being part of this amazing excavation.

This will definitely be repeated this next year.  A special thanks to the Historic Scotland Rangers, Sandra, Elaine and Keith, and Helen Woodsford Dean, for making this such a success.

From the Trenches

I’m Giles, currently studying for the MA in archaeological practice at Orkney College. The Ness of Brodgar excavation forms a key component of our studies, and, for me, has been the real high-point of what has been an academically stimulating – and great fun – year.

Readers of this blog, and of the regular articles in The Orcadian, will be more than familiar with the headlines this site generates – Neolithic art in incredible numbers, polychromic decorated stones, the “Brodgar Boy”. However, it is often easy to forget that, behind these headlines of fantastic finds, lies a Neolithic site of staggering complexity.

As an archaeologist who cut his teeth on chalk sites, with nice clear features cut through white chalk natural, the experience of working inside buildings with one metre of walling still standing is certainly a new one – archaeologists using the same entrances as people would have done 5,000 years ago!

The drystone construction of Structure One, where the efforts of the MA students has been focused this year, is of superb quality. For instance, the wall of the southern recess shows a very slightly concave curve, with all stonework lying completely flush with this deliberate aspect of the building’s design.

The primary focus, this year, has been on the interleaving deposits that comprise the secondary phases of occupation within this building.

It is only now that we can start to see floor deposits becoming fully exposed, together with a beautiful offset hearth, after the removal and careful recording of later modifications, rubble and leveling layers within this building. This is the true “meat” of understanding the usage of Structure One.

Only through the creation of a thorough record can we hope to understand the way the original double-cruciform building was altered, remodeled and finally decommissioned throughout its use/life in the Late Neolithic.

This process has required us to record context by context, drawing and photographing layer by layer, to try and understand the individual acts of deposition that are represented on site.

For me, digging is always a pleasure, having spent as much time as possible down a variety of trenches every summer.

However, when you look up at the Ness of Brodgar site and see the sheer variety, and complexity, of Late Neolithic archaeology around you, it is not hard to feel privileged to be in this particular muddy hole.


I’m Todd Leiser, from near San Francisco, California, here with the group from my school, Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon.

Interestingly enough, I am not an archaeology student, like my fellow classmates, but instead I study film.

My own personal reason for being here comes from my interest not only to have a study abroad experience but also to learn exactly what it’s like to be on an archaeological dig (something that Hollywood and modern filmmaking would lead you to believe involves fighting off Nazis with bullwhips).

The past few weeks have involved the simple and calculated work of taking off layers and layers of dirt from across the site, to slowly uncover the structures we have. It’s a unique practice that few others will be familiar with and I hope to come away with an experience I can apply to my own creative works.

Today has been particularly exciting as I’ve finally found an object of particular interest — a large, intact piece of cow bone, probably from the upper part of a leg, which we photographed upon finding.

This being the last week of our programme’s time on the dig, it’s exciting to finally find such a noteworthy item.

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